Honda Fit Gets Mileage, Misses Out on Looks, Adult Fun

Oct. 1 (Bloomberg) — It’s official. The econo-box has returned, and it’s in demand. With buyers baying at dealers’ doors, Honda has rushed out its second iteration of the subcompact, five-door Fit. The company expects to sell some 85,000 of them a year.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why. It’s cheap and cheap to run. With an automatic model costing $16,000 and gas mileage attaining the 35 miles-per-gallon mark on the highway, the Fit is efficient here-to-there transportation, few questions asked.

Yet buyers probably should be asking a few before downing this purported tonic to a $4-a-gallon hangover.

The Fit’s been getting a number of glowing reviews, which might lead one to believe that it’s a refined and grown-up sort of car. It isn’t. Rather, it’s the car you’d buy for your off-to- college offspring, or to use as a second auto to run around town.

But if you have a long daily commute and you’re thinking of downgrading from that BMW 3 Series, or even a Honda Civic, you might think again.

Honda certainly knows the American marketplace, and there are a number of things that the Fit does very right. The new 2009 model is roomier than the outgoing one, and it’s incongruously spacious, a happy offshoot of the revised wedge-like design. The roof hovers well above your head — I could have worn a cowboy hat in there.

There’s not a single blind spot from the driver’s seat. The steeply raked front glass is as big as a picture window, and the two quirky quarter windows in front of the side mirrors allow in extra light. The support pillars are narrow and the back window similarly spacious, so lane changes and backing up is stress- free.

Cargo Space

Adding to the overall practicality is the hatchback, which is a cinch to get into, and the 57 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded down. (They go completely flat.) A grocery hauler if there ever was one; even ambitious Home Depot runs aren’t out of the question.

All are benefits of the exterior design, which one might charitably call contrarian, but I’d just call homely. The Fit’s wedge reminds me of a doorstop — not exactly the essence of elegance. I’m not sure who decided that beauty and eco credentials should be at war with one another, but I hope it’s a passing phase.

Which brings us to the drive itself. The new Fit gets a more powerful engine, a 1.5-liter inline four cylinder, with 117 horsepower — an increase of eight. The word “power” is pretty relative here. Though Honda has admirably kept the weight to around 2,500 pounds, the Fit doesn’t exactly burn down the road. In fact if you’re used to the acceleration that you find in a Civic, the Fit will be frustrating.

Body Roll

I put in more than 400 miles in the car, much of it on the highway. Driving up steep hills was torture, with the engine laboring and me often leaning forward, as if it would lend extra forward momentum. Too often those 117 horses feel more like recalcitrant donkeys.

Honda improved the rigidity of the body and the Fit is more stable and less likely to experience wheel hop on bad pavement. But there’s plenty of body roll in corners and I wouldn’t call the drive fun or particularly inspiring.

The road noise bleeds into the cabin and the overall experience generally lacks refinement. Not quite a car for a grown-up; somehow I felt like I was back in college. But the truth is my then-car, a 1992 Civic, was actually much more fun to drive.

Bigger Wheels

My test car was the Fit Sport with a five-speed automatic which, including destination charges, prices at a little under $17,580; $19,430 with a GPS navigation system. For the extra bucks you get a roofline spoiler, an underbody kit and paddle- shifters behind the steering wheel, which work just fine. (It’s also available as a five-speed manual.)

The most noticeable difference: 16-inch wheels versus the regular Fit’s 15-inch ones, which actually cost you a bit of fuel economy. It gets 27 city and 33 highway miles per gallon versus 28 and 35. I averaged about 34 mpg on my road trip.

The word “sport,” when applied to the Fit is oxymoronic, and those extra bits make it no less ugly, so just go for the regular model.

And if it’s easy to see the outside world through all those windows, it doesn’t help the look of the interior. The seats feel like they’re made of cheap foam padding and offer little lumbar support. None of my passengers, female or male, found them comfortable.

The optional navigation system is excellent, and is far more intuitive and trustworthy than those even in luxury cars. There are few other nifty details, too, like cup holders positioned on the front dash, perfect for cradling coffee. Otherwise, it’s very cheapo looking, with plastic control knobs that look like they came off a minivan.

Times may be tough, but must we slip back to just-adequate cars? I expect more. The truth is the base Civic starts at mid- $15,000 and gets 36 mpg with an automatic transmission. I would take its straightforward looks and good-to-go nature over the Fit’s econo-box quirks any day.

The 2009 Honda Fit Sport at a Glance

Engine: 1.5-liter four-cylinder with 117 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic or five-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 10 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 27 city; 33 highway.

Price as tested: $19,430

Best features: Amazing visibility on all sides; the cargo capacity.

Worst features: Loud cabin; lack of overall refinement.

Target buyer: Those looking to get from point A to point B, using very little gas.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)